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Friends Remember War Resisters League Activist & Socialist David McReynolds, Long Targeted by FBI

Web ExclusiveAugust 20, 2018
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We continue our look back at the life and legacy of longtime pacifist and socialist David McReynolds, who died Friday at the age of 88. He was staff member with the War Resisters League from 1960 to 1999, where he focused on counter-recruitment and helped organize one of the first draft card burnings. He went on to play a key role in some of major demonstrations against the Vietnam War and campaign for nuclear disarmament. McReynolds ran for president in 1980 and 2000 as an openly gay man. We speak with two of his close friends. Ed Hedemann worked with McReynolds for decades at the War Resisters League. Jeremy Scahill is an investigative journalist and co-founder of The Intercept.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our remembrance of the life and legacy of David McReynolds, longtime pacifist and socialist whom historian Howard Zinn and many others have called a “hero of the antiwar movement.” David McReynolds died on Friday at the age of 88.

For nearly four decades, from 1960 to 1999, he was a staff member with the War Resisters League, where he focused on counter-recruitment and helped organize one of the first draft card burnings, and went on to play a key role in some of the major demonstrations against the Vietnam War. He also campaigned for nuclear disarmament. In 1980 and 2000, David McReynolds ran for president as an openly gay man on the Socialist Party USA ticket.

We’re going to turn now to a clip of a video made for his 80th birthday by his friend Anthony Giacchino.

DAVID McREYNOLDS: In high school, at George Washington High, as a student, I was fascinated by current events. And I followed the war with enthusiasm, with fascination, the map showing the Russian retreat or advance, where the Allied forces were. And I remember two headlines. One of them was “1,000 Bombers Make Hamburger of Hamburg.” And another was “800 Bombers Blast Bremen.” Germany had been so devastated that they couldn’t cover all the damage.

So then, in 1951, I’m walking through Germany. And at first my reactions are entirely politically correct. I’m looking at the destruction and realizing this was the result of the capitalist drive for power, that the working class suffered the most, which is true, that the large business corporate structure was back in business. But it was seeing Bremen, seeing the damage, realizing I was the kid who had been so enthusiastic about the bombs falling, and then seeing the chaos the bombs had caused, I really had a profound, genuine religious experience. And I went up to an old lady, and then I pointed at the ruins, and I said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” And I broke down.

The nature of violence and war embraces both sides. It embraces both the Nazis and what we did during World War II. And it was the point at which I really had an insight into war: I was the one who had dropped the bombs.

AMY GOODMAN: That was David McReynolds. He died Friday at the age of 88.

For more, we continue our conversation with two of David’s longtime friends. Here in New York, Ed Hedemann, who was a close friend of David McReynolds starting in the '70s. The two worked together for decades at the War Resisters League on counter-recruitment and disarmament campaigns. Ed is the author of the _War Resisters League Organizer's Manual_, also their book War Tax Resistance: A Guide to Withholding Your Support from the Military. In '82, Ed co-founded the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, which still exists today. And joining us by Democracy Now! video stream, Jeremy Scahill, investigative journalist, co-founder of The Intercept, author the books Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, as well as the Oscar-nominated film by that name.

We welcome you both to continue this conversation. That, there you have David McReynolds talking about pacifism and what it meant to him, because he originally was fully for the bombing as a very young man, of Nazi Germany.

ED HEDEMANN: Yes, absolutely, yeah. That changed him. But it was that transition period, from about 1949 to 1951, that he was profoundly moved by the destruction of war and was an active campaigner—well, he was quite an organizer even before that in other issues, like the Prohibition Party—he was a member of that, but then left—and Socialist Party, War Resisters League, anti-nuclear politics.

AMY GOODMAN: David McReynolds was a longtime member of the Socialist Party. He ran for Congress when, Ed?

ED HEDEMANN: He ran for Congress in 1968 as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party that Eldridge Cleaver, I believe, was heading the ticket.

AMY GOODMAN: And he also ran for president in 1980 and 2000—

ED HEDEMANN: Yes, Socialist Party, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —on the Socialist Party USA ticket—

ED HEDEMANN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —as an openly gay candidate. For U.S. Senate, he ran in 2004 on the Green Party ticket.

ED HEDEMANN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: This is David McReynolds talking about how he first became a socialist when he was a student.

DAVID McREYNOLDS: I came into the Socialist Party partly because of poets like Kenneth Patchen, who had—who were very powerful in their poems: “No man can own what belongs to all. No man can lie when all are lied to.” I also became a socialist from my economics class, which as a good professor explained that 3 percent unemployment was the lowest you could expect under capitalism, and that was necessary. And I thought 3 percent unemployment was too high. But I became a socialist because it struck me that capitalism is a lousy system.

Among other things, it made my father work as an advertising man, when he would have been much better off doing something else. He would have preferred to be a minister. He was a devout Christian. He was a salesman because he had to put bread on the table for the family. And it didn’t do good things for him. To see what the system had done to him, what it had done to so many people—most of the work that people do is pointless work, and they do it because they must earn a living to provide food. And I want a society where the people are more able to work—and work hard—but at jobs that they enjoy and that make a contribution to the world around them. And we don’t live in that kind of society.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s another clip from a video made for David McReynolds’ 80th birthday by his friend Anthony Giacchino. Jeremy, as you listen to David speaking, we are also watching him in his apartment. Talk about both his philosophy and knowing him in his Lower East Side apartment.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I remember when my friend Carmen Trotta—I guess it would have been in 1996—invited me to go over to David McReynolds’ apartment on the Lower East Side of New York for an evening of—he just invited—David would do this all the time. I’m sure Ed has been at these gatherings many, many times. He would invite a kind of eclectic, interesting collection of people. And, you know, libations would be consumed, both drinking them and smoking them. And David’s house was filled with records and photographs and papers and papers and papers. And, you know, he still was using, at times, a typewriter or a word processor, although he later became a very tenacious correspondent operating a number of listservs on various progressive causes and always trying to connect people. And, you know, he also was an old-fashioned guy. As I said, he loved records. He was a music aficionado. He also was old-school. He would make his own seltzer water with a—you know, he would buy the little canisters, and he wasn’t using SodaStream or any, you know, Israeli apartheid goods. And he would sit there, and, you know, David loved to both facilitate serious discussion, but then also interject with something incredibly witty or funny. He was a master—and it’s very difficult for people to do this—of using sarcasm not at the expense of the smaller people. David definitely employed sarcasm as a way of punching up at the powerful.

And, you know, I think Ed and I would both be remiss if we didn’t mention that David had this incredible artistic eye. He was a really beautiful amateur photographer, both of movements but also of nature. I still have a photograph that David took of this flower, this bright red flower, that had somehow emerged out of the rubble of a, you know, industrial scene in New York City.

I mean, this was a guy who loved people, loved life, but also knew that if the authoritarians take your ability to laugh, including at them, away, then they win. And that’s one of the sort of things about David that I’ll always cherish, is that he was funny, he was real, he was human. He was a guy who would say, “My political philosophy is not perfect. Every political philosophy has holes in it.” He considered himself an ongoing student. And that’s what I saw the last time I met with him, where I was invited to sort of give a report about Yemen. That was what he was spending his last moments in this world working on, was the latest horrid U.S. genocidal war.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you add to that, Ed?

ED HEDEMANN: Yeah, well, I’d like to emphasize his photography. I mean, he really was a photographer his entire life, in the 1950s up until, well, when he was still able to take photographs. He has a terrific collection, which there—a few of his photos are up at mcreynoldsphotography.org and The New York Times obit had mentioned. But he had some terrific pictures from the 1950s of historic people—Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, Rosa Parks, Jayne Mansfield.

And David was a cook, too. I mean, he was a terrific cook, not only the seltzer, but he was famous for his hummus with a lot of garlic in it. But he did a lot of terrific stuff in that regard.

He was also a longtime member of the Bromeliad Society. And a key thing is he loved animals, absolutely loved animals. Cats were the most important thing to him. He usually had about two cats with him at all times. It’s Shaman who had died just shortly after David was taken out.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to explain that—

ED HEDEMANN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: David injected Shaman twice a day. She was diabetic?

ED HEDEMANN: He. He was diabetic.

AMY GOODMAN: He was diabetic.

ED HEDEMANN: Yeah, twice a day with insulin, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, because David fell, and it’s not clear how many days he laid on the ground in his apartment before he was discovered, Shaman had not been injected.

ED HEDEMANN: No, Shaman had not been injected. We don’t know for how long. Shaman was alive when David was discovered, and seemed to perk up and was injected with insulin at that point, and thought that he would live. He did not. Peggy Solomon was his other cat, who died, I think, a couple years ago. So, Peggy Solomon and Shaman were the two companions that he had for many years.

AMY GOODMAN: So David was a photographer, and he was also a poet. Can you read from this poem that he wrote for the massive War Is Over demonstration in New York’s Central Park on May 11th, 1975?

ED HEDEMANN: Yes. He said:

hey!

to happy hell today
with all hard politics
peddle the revolution tomorrow
the correct line this hour
is joy

stick a flower in your mimeo machine
or give it to the cop

smoke it up / drink it up / and
damn it
laugh!

we earned it
ten years of marchings/beatings/jailings
trapped in jails/armies/all night meetings

and for god sake don’t worry
about being serious!
we’ve a lifetime ahead
Rocky tumbles coming,
Fords to cross,
Kissinger goodby,
armies to disarm,
banks to throw open,
jails to tear down.

tomorrow is time enough.
we’ve a good life of work
standing right ahead.

but take this day off
miss the cell meeting tonight
skip the speaker who will explain it all
and take a friend to bed
instead

this was the end of the beginning
tonight is party time all over town.

AMY GOODMAN: And he read that at the big War Is Over protest.

ED HEDEMANN: Well, I don’t remember if he read it, because I was out of town when that happened, so I missed it. But he produced this leaflet—I mean, the War Resisters League produced this leaflet to hand out there, and it was handed out by the thousands.

AMY GOODMAN: David McReynolds was extremely creative, Jeremy, and you spent time in his apartment.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, you know, as Ed is reading that poem, I mean, it could have been written by David a couple of years ago, not decades ago, because that was still the spirit that he brought with him. And, you know, as he got older, he was very in touch with his frailty and his inability to do—to operate as he did. I mean, remember, he retired—Ed would know exactly, but I think in 1999 he retired.

ED HEDEMANN: Yeah.

JEREMY SCAHILL: And yet, even in his retirement, ran for president and then, you know, continued showing up, which, of course, was the primary thing that activists believe is necessary. You have to be there with your body. David continued to show up even in poor health and continued to organize.

But, you know, I think Ed is right, and I’m trying to also, to emphasize that David was not some like stern sectarian who had no joy in his life. David was a guy who in fact loved life so much that he wanted to spend it fighting for a more just world and, you know, enjoying food, enjoying music, enjoying animals, enjoying the company of friends. All of that is part of being a revolutionary. And I love that in that poem, you know, David is talking about laughing, and is talking about making love, and is talking about being with friends and taking time off from all of this misery that the authoritarians are raining down upon us in the world, because he knew, at the end of the day: What is the whole point of our struggle? It’s so that people can have peace in their lives. And what does it mean to have peace in your lives? It means that you have joy in your life. It means you have the company of others in your life. It means that you’re secure in knowing that you can walk down the street without being blown up. That was what his whole life was about fighting for. And it was sort of consistent with the resistance that he also knew how to enjoy the good stuff in life.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a few more clips of David in his own words. This is David McReynolds describing his work with the War Resisters League, where he worked from 1960 to 1999.

DAVID McREYNOLDS: The longest job I ever had was working for the War Resisters League, from 1960 ’til 1999. And my job changed over the years, from being field secretary to being, in a sense, the spokesperson for the league.

To be a war resister means to challenge the institution of war and to resist all wars, defensive or aggressive, even at the cost of going to prison or at the risk of your life. Now, whether I would be willing to risk my life, I don’t know. Would I be willing to risk going to prison? Yes, I would. So, to be a war resister means to view war itself as a crime against humanity, not the soldiers who are engaged in the fighting. They’re trapped by the structure.

In the Vietnam War, it was clear that, to the degree that you can say one side is right and one side is wrong, it was clear the Vietnamese were right. But that doesn’t mean for a moment that I would buy weapons for the Vietnamese. My job during the Vietnam War was to get the Americans out of Vietnam. It wasn’t to decide how the Vietnamese were going to wage their own struggle. So we resisted that war actively and organized to do everything we could to slow down and impede the American war machine.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was David McReynolds in a video for his 80th birthday, done by his friend Anthony Giacchino. A lot of people may not know what the War Resisters League is, Ed Hedemann. You worked with him for decades at the WRL. Explain the work you did together.

ED HEDEMANN: Yeah, well, mostly my role was as an organizer for issues like disarmament, counter-recruitment, local organizing. And I would work with the people in the communities and help produce materials.

David was the one who churned out a lot of fliers and analysis that would be used by local organizers. He went around the country to speak from time to time. And he participated in organizing demonstrations. We had a large demonstration in 1976, the bicentennial of the U.S., where we had a walk called the Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice. It went across the country, from California to Washington, D.C., had a lot of different routes, took nine months to do this entire thing. David was essential in networking with organizations that he knew, whether that be the AFSC, Fellowship for Reconciliation or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the South. He was very good at making those contacts and would help produce position papers for that. So that’s the sort of thing that he would do, very well. He also came up with ideas for demonstrations and that we helped carry out in our respective capacities.

AMY GOODMAN: And overall, the War Resisters League, founded to?

ED HEDEMANN: Well, it was founded in 1923 in the aftermath of World War I. There was a concern that the only way to stop wars—this is in 1923—was for men, who were the ones who were doing the fighting, to refuse to participate in the next war, and to register and sign up as many people as possible who would say, “I am not going to fight.” It didn’t work out, but that was the basic concept, and a lot of people joined. And the War Resisters League helped organize demonstrations in the 1930s, No More War parades and so forth.

And it was also a secular organization, because, up to that point, most of the organizations had a religious basis. And War Resisters League organizers, people who started it—Jesse Wallace Hughan being the key founder, John Hayes Holmes and a number of others—they were concerned—there were a lot of socialists who didn’t have religious affiliation, of anarchists and others who believed in nonviolent solution rather than bombing people, and they felt sort of left out of the religious organizations. So the War Resisters League was an offshoot of Fellowship of Reconciliation, a religious organization, and to try to be a home for all people, whether they were religious or not.

And it built up throughout the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and especially after World War II. A lot of resisters got out of prison, people who refused to participate in World War II and had been sent to jail. And they broadened the scope of the War Resisters League to focus not only on opposing wars, but causes of war, but which was a part of War Resisters League founding. But they wanted to do more demonstrations in the street, civil disobedience, work on civil rights issues in the ’50s, “Ban the Bomb” movements. So the WRL really ramped up its street actions and street organizing, especially in the ’60s and ’70s.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, as you’ve said, you got, under Freedom of Information Act, a lot of documents of surveillance of the War Resisters League, and, in that, of hundreds of pages on David McReynolds.

ED HEDEMANN: Yes. Well, this is back in mid-1970s, where there was a lot of—well, the FOIA had passed a few years earlier, and then people were saying, “OK, well, I’m going to go get my FBI files.” And we did it for the organization. Everybody on WRL staff also applied and got their files, heavily redacted at points. But the most interesting ones, at least to me, were the ones on the War Resisters League where the COINTELPRO of the FBI sought to disrupt the movement, not only—

AMY GOODMAN: This is the Counterintelligence Program.

ED HEDEMANN: Yes, Counterintelligence Program of the FBI. The whole purpose of it was to disrupt the movement—the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, any other movement of leftists, the communists, socialists, so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: Also certainly went after the Black Panthers, and many were killed, assassinated.

ED HEDEMANN: Oh, yes. No, absolutely. I mean, this is—this is all part of COINTELPRO. But then we got these documents where we saw that they made up these fliers, I mean, these outrageous fliers with stupid language, I mean, really childish language that we never would have ever used. And, you know, they approved it. I mean, I was amazed that they went out to say that they put in the profanity and vulgarity because that was all part of the movement. You know, it’s like we swore every time we opened our mouths. And they—yeah, so.

AMY GOODMAN: You got thousands of pages from the FBI?

ED HEDEMANN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And hundreds were on David McReynolds?

ED HEDEMANN: Yes. Well, David applied for his own FBI files. I mean, you had to give your Social Security number and prove that you were, you know, David McReynolds, that he had to prove who he was, that it wasn’t just somebody else trying to get this information. But so, he applied for his and got over 400 pages. I applied for myself. I forgot what I got, but, you know, initially I got 50 pages. Then I said, “Oh, what about such and such?” Then I got a few more pages. And every time I went back, I got more pages. And it wasn’t just the FBI, but it was the IRS, the CIA, naval intelligence. I mean, all these different branches had files on the War Resisters League and on David, of course.

But it mostly is reporting on what we were doing. And they had another—they rated people, too, like “revolutionary threat” or something like that, and they had people at different threat levels, such that if an emergency happened, depending on the threat level, certain people would be rounded up. It was never implemented, but—

AMY GOODMAN: So, this was decades ago that David applied for his—

ED HEDEMANN: Yes, in the mid-’70s.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, that means there might have been a lot more that he didn’t have a record of.

ED HEDEMANN: Oh, yes. I’m sure there’s a lot more.

AMY GOODMAN: Did he ever feel that he was followed?

ED HEDEMANN: I think he didn’t care. I mean, his style of organizing, and that of the War Resisters League, was basically being open. We weren’t afraid to say what we were doing. We weren’t trying to hide it. We were trying to advertise. We wanted people to know. We had nothing to hide. So, you know, it’s a little bit annoying, but we had nothing to hide, and it didn’t bother us. We didn’t waste our time worrying about it.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of A.J. Muste and Bayard Rustin?

ED HEDEMANN: Yeah, well, Bayard Rustin was someone who influenced David very early on. He mentioned in that video that it was 1949 that he heard him speak and was profoundly influenced by him.

AMY GOODMAN: Bayard Rustin—

ED HEDEMANN: Bayard Rustin, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —the black pacifist, organizer of the 1963 march where King spoke.

ED HEDEMANN: Yes, right, who had been a member of Fellowship of Reconciliation, as well as War Resisters League. And A.J. Muste, who was sort of the dean of the peace movement at that point, in the '40s and ’50s and certainly ’60s, because Muste was respected by all sides. The peace movement wasn't one homogeneous thing that everybody agreed with everything. There was lots of fights. But everybody respected Muste. And Muste was able to hold together a lot of the different parts of the peace movement. And his analysis, David agreed with a lot. I mean, their political philosophy is very similar. So he had profound impact on David.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to two moments of video clips where David McReynolds was running for president. This first one was running for in the 2000 election for president on the Socialist Party ticket and talking about particularly what effect he might have had on Florida.

DAVID McREYNOLDS: There are people who voted for me because they wanted to. But someone could argue that by running on the Florida ballot, the number of votes I got tipped the election to Bush. And granted, the same thing could have been said about the other three candidates. But I think that’s in some ways an unfair question, because the real question in my mind is why Gore did not ask for a recount in the whole state.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s interesting. David McReynolds—that’s from the video that Anthony Giacchino did for his 80th birthday. But, Ed, can you comment on this? Right? He ran on the Socialist Party ticket. 2000, of course, is Bush v. Gore.

ED HEDEMANN: I can’t comment any more than what was said. I mean, he was—Florida was a key state, and there was a lot of these hanging chads. And so, they kept—the news kept looking at these hanging chads. It just happened that the position of the Socialist Party ticket, David, was right close by, so his—the Socialist Party and his running were on the news a lot, just by accident.

AMY GOODMAN: So now let’s go to 2004, when he was running for Senate on the Green Party ticket and was asked about Senator Chuck Schumer’s opposition to gay marriage.

DAVID McREYNOLDS: I think it is really outrageous for Schumer, particularly in a city which has a large gay and lesbian population, to come out against gay marriage. I really think this is contemptible on his part. And I also don’t know—although that’s not nearly as important in my mind as the issue of killing people and being killed in Iraq. I don’t understand why gays and lesbians shouldn’t suffer from the same angst, anxiety, tribulations and trials of marriage which, you know, heterosexuals have to go through. Why should we be exempt from these problems? So, that’s a fake issue, but Schumer has dodged that issue, along with many others. And I think people should cast a strong protest vote against Chuck Schumer.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re going to leave it there in Dave McReynolds’ own words. And I want to thank our guests today, Ed Hedemann, longtime colleague and friend of Dave McReynolds at the War Resisters League, and Jeremy Scahill, investigative journalist, co-founder of The Intercept. Both knew Dave McReynolds for decades.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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